Hitting the highway with Ed

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I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, but the first time I came down here I fell in love with the area. We moved here 27 years ago and it’s just a great place to live.” –Ed Saxman, Volvo’s powertrain product manager, on the rolling terrain surrounding Greensboro, North Carolina

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Probably the best part of my job is hitting the road for product test rides; to put trucks and trailers through their paces out on the open highway.

Well, the luck of the Irish came through for me on my latest highway adventure, courtesy of Volvo Trucks North America (VTNA), as it dialed up a picture-perfect spring day to go for a spin in a 2010-compliant VN780 tractor pulling a 53-foot dry van trailer loaded up with baled paper -- with our total gross combined vehicle weight topping out at 67,000 pounds, comfortably below the 80,000 pound weight limits on the highways we'd be using.

[Below, Tom Palenchar, VTNA’s marketing product manager, gives an overview of the VN780 model we took on this test ride.]

With Ed Saxman, Volvo’s powertrain manager at the wheel, we headed northwest, angling along I-77 up into the southern Appalachian mountain range and on into Virginia – landing not quite far from where I attended college in Blacksburg, VA -- stopping for lunch along I-81 at a Flying J truck stop , before returning back to Greensboro, NC.

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Part of VTNA’s 2010 Driving Success Tour, this particular VN780 – a highway tractor considered to be Volvo’s flagship model – came loaded with goodies: a 435-hp D13 engine, equipped with diesel particulate filter (DPF) and selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology to control emissions; a Volvo I-Shift automated manual transmission (AMT); wide-base tires on the tandem rear axles; a battery-powered bunk air conditioning system; full aerodynamic fairings package, with adjustable cab roof and side fairing trim tabs; plus the Volvo Enhanced Cruise (VEC) system, a collision avoidance system.

While I snapped away with my Nikon, capturing as much of the gloriously lush North Carolina and southwestern Virginia countryside as I could, Ed and I talked about a wide range of subjects: new super-weight truck designs being tested in Sweden; Australian B-train heavyweight trucks that haul 400,000 pounds through the Outback; the super fast and stealthy SR-71 Blackbird; Facebook and other communication changes wrought by the Internet; the changeover of North Carolina’s tobacco economy to one dominated by hog farms; the infrastructure challenges facing highway widening efforts; and – oh yes – future truck designs.

[Here’s the view as we pass through Fancy Gap, Virginia, descending a 4% grade back to North Carolina.]

“Is a 10 mile per gallon truck possible? Only in just a bobtail configuration right now,” he said. “We’ve been working on improving tractor designs for 25 years now and we’ve left no stone unturned as to where we could make improvements. Now, there are changes we can still make to the trailer, to improve the overall efficiency of the tractor-trailer combination, but it would be tough to get to tractor-trailer to achieve 10 mpg consistently with today’s technology.”

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Part of the challenge is how to maintain the “sweet spot” for a tractor-trailer’s fuel economy, without sacrificing performance. One way Volvo is trying to do that is through its new “Eco-Torque” feature on the I-Shift. As this transmission is designed to handle all the possible torque outputs of Volvo’s engine family – the D-11, D-13, and D-16 – the engineers have figured out a way to give each engine model a “dual personality” if you will. That is, the ability to “morph” from one rating to another, gaining horsepower and torque, under certain conditions.

The key is the I-Shift – the “brains” of the powertain, Saxman told me. As a truck starts climbing a hill, it naturally slows down and thus requires more “oomph” to pull its load up the grade. So what I-Shift does is temporarily “boost” the torque output of the engine – taking our 435 hp D-13 producing 1,550 ft-lbs of torque and turning it into a 500-plus hp monster churning out 1,750 ft-lbs of torque.

That allowed the VN780 to climb a 4% grade in 12th gear, maintaining about 55 to 57 mph yet also keeping fuel economy in the 7.4 mpg range. “The driver doesn’t need to floor the accelerator, nor downshift, which all cost him fuel economy,” Saxman explained as we chugged up over the hills. “All he has to do is drive.”

[Saxman discusses this “dual personality” engine feature in more detail below.]

He admitted, though, that going “automatics” is a tough sell for many professional truckers. “It’s like playing the piano,” Saxman said. “If you know how to do it, you don’t want to sit there and watch the keys move on their own – you want to actually play them and create the music. You – meaning the driver – are the music man after all.”

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Yet as we powered our way back through afternoon traffic in and around Winston-Salem on our way back to Greensboro, it became readily apparent why not having to shift can be very helpful. Cars zoomed past us on the right and left, with traffic jumping in fits and starts as drivers sought to enter and exit the highway in a mad rush of chaos.

All the way, Saxman kept his hands glued to the wheel, eyes on the road (and ears cocked for blind spot warnings) never having to worry about missing a gear or losing precious fuel to compensate for the brash actions of other motorists.

“It’s all about delivering a more capable truck to a driver, so they don’t have to work as hard to maintain performance, fuel economy, and safe vehicle operation,” he explained. “It’s about putting a smarter truck under a driver’s control.”

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